VA Won't Discuss Extent of Colonoscopies It Performed With Improperly Sterilized Equipment

March 27, 2009 - 1:23 PM
VA Won't Discuss Extent of Equipment Contamination
Chattanooga, Tenn. - Thousands of military veterans across the South are waiting to find out if they were exposed to infectious diseases by government clinics that performed colonoscopies and other procedures with equipment that wasn't properly sterilized.
 
Veterans Affairs officials won't say if mistakes that may have exposed patients to infections at medical centers in Tennessee and Florida and a clinic in Georgia have been discovered elsewhere.
 
The VA recently warned veterans who had colonoscopies as far back as five years ago at its hospitals in Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Miami that they may have been exposed to the body fluids of other patients and should undergo tests to make sure they haven't contracted serious illnesses.
 
“What if you had to worry about giving your wife AIDS?” said Wayne Craig, a 52-year-old U.S. Navy veteran who lives in Elora and had a colonoscopy at the VA's Alvin C. York Medical Center in Murfreesboro, near Nashville, about five years ago. “Why haven't I been notified within five years?”
 
The VA declined to answer four Associated Press requests over the past week about the results of what the department described as a nationwide procedure and training review that was to end March 14. VA spokeswoman Laurie Tranter said the department planned to issue a response later Thursday.
 
The review of all VA medical centers and outpatient clinics followed reports in February that the department discovered “improperly reprocessed” endoscopic equipment used for colonoscopies in Murfreesboro and ear, nose and throat exams in Augusta, Ga.
 
Just this week, the VA acknowledged problems at a facility in Miami, too.
 
Veteran Gary Simpson, 57, of Spring City had a colonoscopy at the Murfreesboro clinic in 2007. He said his blood has tested negative for HIV and hepatitis, but he's still worried because a nurse told him some diseases don't show up for seven years.
 
“He talks about it every day,” said his wife, Janice. “It has really messed with him a lot. It is just too disturbing.”
 
Nashville lawyer Mike Sheppard said his firm is preparing to file claims on behalf of up to 15 colonoscopy patients, including several who have since tested positive for hepatitis B. He said an elderly man who had cancer when he had a colonoscopy died shortly afterward.
 
“We are investigating the death,” Sheppard said.
 
According to a VA e-mail, only about half of the Murfreesboro and Augusta patients notified by letter of a mistake that exposed them to "potentially infectious fluids" have requested appointments for follow-up blood tests offered by the department.
 
In February, the VA said it sent letters offering the tests to about 6,400 patients who had colonoscopies between April 23, 2003, and Dec. 1, 2008, at Murfreesboro and to about 1,800 patients treated over 11 months last year at Augusta.
 
The VA has now sent letters advising 3,260 patients who had colonoscopies between May 2004 and March 12 at the Miami Veterans Affairs Healthcare System that they also should get tests for HIV, hepatitis and other infectious diseases.
 
That revelation prompted two Florida lawmakers to demand an investigation by the VA Office of Inspector General.
 
The VA has declined an AP request for an explanation of why the time periods during which exposure could have occurred varied at the three locations.
 
Janice Simpson said an employee in U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp's office in Chattanooga told her that the blood test notices sent to colonoscopy patients of the Murfreesboro clinic were timed to the date of a procedure on a patient with AIDS. A spokeswoman for Wamp said Simpson was mistaken.
 
The VA did say in an April 19 e-mail to AP that at the VA's Murfreesboro colonoscopy facility "one of the tubes used for irrigation during the procedure had an incorrect valve."
 
The statement also said "tubing attached to the scope was processed at the end of each day instead of between each patient as required by the manufacturer's instructions."
 
The VA letter to Craig said he “could have been exposed to body fluids from a previous patient.” Craig said his follow-up test did not show any infection.
 
He said he thinks the VA was saving money by not cleaning the tubing between its use on each patient.
 
“What if this was a public hospital?” said Craig, who has six grandchildren. “There’s no reason in the world a veteran can't file a suit against a veteran hospital the same as a public hospital. This is veterans you are talking about.”